How good is your English?

With the expansion of the Higher Education (HE) sector in Pakistan, the need for pre-sessional English language courses has emerged. Responding to this need, many universities and HE institutions (predominantly the private ones) have prefaced their graduate programmes with English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses, popularly known as pre-sessional language support programmes.

Since English functions as both the gatekeeper and medium of instruction at the HE level, these warm-up programmes provide an opportunity for students to improve their English proficiency levels and in turn their confidence. Literature also upholds provision of pre-sessional programmes as a good measure of the "equal opportunities" claim put forth by many reputable universities.

In a context like Pakistan, where a majority of educated people are not properly exposed to the academic variety of English language, the ethical and academic merits of this provision are invaluable. Within the broader domain of English Language Teaching (ELT), pre-sessional EAP programmes are distinguished by their philosophy and construct. Besides the many sub-ingredients that feed into their unique construct, these programmes are essentially needs-specific and outcomes-oriented.

Such a construct preconditions a close fit between the course outcomes and the language demands as stipulated by the target academic environment (mostly a postgraduate programme). An undercurrent of this construct is that "needs analysis" and "assessment planning" precede course design and delivery, a detail which many language tutors tend to oversee (Banerjee &Wall, 2006). No doubt, a strong conceptual design complemented by an extensive repertoire of teaching methodologies could work wonders; yet such enablers could get neutralised by insufficient consideration given to course exit assessment during the planning phase.

When the assessment criteria used in pre-sessional exit tests do not reflect the criteria against which the students' performance will be judged in academic contexts, the scores achieved are less likely to capture the students' ability to perform in those contexts. It is thus very important for English language practitioners to understand "course exit assessment" as an integral function of pre-sessional EAP course design. This article attempts to highlight this link while detailing out one type of exit assessment, i.e., "can do" scales.

To begin with, most HE institutions specify a minimum level of English language proficiency for admission to their graduate courses. However, each sets down a different route by which candidates can satisfy these requirements. There are institutions that only approve of scores from standardised tests like IELTS, TOEFL, etc., or tests that have been designed by external agencies for institutional consumption (e.g. the Institutional TOEFL). Some institutions, inclusive or preclusive of the standardised test scores require students to take an in-house aptitude test. The results of this test determine whether the students need further language support before they begin their academic programme. In yet other institutions (many examples are found in the UK), students who meet all admission requirements other than the language-related ones are required to successfully complete a pre-sessional EAP course.

Likewise, an overview of several pre-sessional EAP courses establishes that there is no normative approach to assessing and reporting performance on such courses. In this way, different universities take on different routes to decide whether students are proficient enough to begin studying in their academic departments after completion of the pre-sessional course. Some universities replicate the design of standardised tests and use these in-house tests as both pre- and post- course measures to determine the change in the students' proficiency levels. Many institutions prefer to judge students on their in-course performance, combining internal test scores, performance on written assignments (projects and course assignments, collected together in portfolios), formal presentations, and classroom participation.

Upon completion of the pre-sessional EAP course, most institutions send individual profile reports to the student affairs department based on results from one or more of the tests taken during the course. These individual reports could either carry an aggregate grade determined by a combination of test results and other assessments, or a pass-fail judgment which is based on a pre-decided cut-off point. Some even indicate students' fate by means of a simple, straightforward criterion like attendance. One popular exit assessment route is to have students re-take an external standardised test like the IELTS or TOEFL.

However, this poses a problem. Even if we look at writing skills, research studies that have analysed writing demands on postgraduate degree programmes and those on IELTS find them incomparable (see Canseco and Byrd, 1989; Horowitz, 1986; and Moore and Morton, 2005). A typical university assignment requires students to select relevant data from various sources, reorganise the data in response to the task, and to develop their response using academic register.

Other writing skills include the ability to present information in tables and graphs, to interpret and translate data from visuals into words and to revise and edit drafts. In fulfilling all these demands, students are rarely required to refer to personal experience. Exceptions apply where tasks require students to write personal reflections on their learning experiences, however, the point of reference for these reflections is an established tradition of already available knowledge (in the form of literature).

If we look at IELTS writing section, task no 1 aligns with the writing demands placed on university students. On the contrary, task no 2 typically requires students to set forth an argument while drawing on their personal experiences instead of asking them to draw on reading sources or primary data. Moreover, IELTS task no 2 refers to a restricted genre, that of persuasive writing; whereas university writing tasks are wide-ranged encompassing reviews, reflection papers, case study reports, research reports, research proposals, summaries, etc.

Though the above is so specific an exemplar to be generalised, it does project an idea of incomparability built into this route. Considering the limitations such routes offer, a recent development in pre-sessional exit assessment is the use of "can-do" scales. These consist of lists of performance objectives against which EAP tutors indicate whether students are able or not to achieve each objective. Cautiously developed and piloted, such scales provide useful guidance to tutors, students and the academic administrators. These are more practical and explicitly reflect characteristics of the EAP construct.

Some aspects to be considered while planning the "can do" scales are:

Function and audience: The main function of the individual "can do" scale-report should be to project an accurate picture of that student's abilities. Students should receive a copy of the report so that they benefit from receiving a frank account of their strengths and weaknesses. It is however, not advisable to soften the reports of students who are not performing adequately. It is the right of students to be alerted when the light is still auburn.

Coverage: The report form should explicitly reflect the current EAP theory. It should specify the skills and strategies that emerge from needs analyses, previous experiences of EAP teachers and academic tutors and most importantly, analysis of the language demands put forth by assessed tasks in the main course of study. It is inappropriate to comment on attitude, aptitude, motivation, awareness or any other quality which is a feature of personality rather than a linguistic or academic ability. In other words, the more specific you are the better.

Evidence: It is best to comment only on features that could be supported by evidence. Moreover, the limits of judgments should also be made clear, for instance, it should be stated explicitly if the tasks that students perform during the pre-sessional course approximate (but do not fully replicate) the demands students are likely to encounter in their study contexts.

The exit assessment report should only indicate how students have performed on the tasks during the course rather than predicting whether they would do well in their future settings. The intention should be to provide an evidential basis for deciding whether or not a student is ready to begin studying on a particular programme. This allows academic administrators for different degree programmes to interpret the evidence differently; depending on the specific aspects of EAP proficiency they consider more important for their fields of study.

Format: Such scales are an alternate to the prose report-format that is difficult and time-consuming for tutors to write. They are also difficult for the end users (the academic administrators and students) to interpret. Such "can do" checklists where tutors only have to place ticks in columns to indicate whether the student did or did not demonstrate certain abilities are easier to be used and standardised.

The following procedure is advisable for devising an exit assessment checklist:

Draw up an exhaustive list of the features of academic reading, writing, listening and speaking abilities (this could be ideally achieved after some research)

Combine some items that are similar and, in contrast, break down some broad descriptors into sub-categories. For instance, an item "content" could be broken into two "can do" sub-categories: "can analyse the topic of the assignment" and "can produce relevant content".

Group items according to the language skill they represent. At times such decisions are complex. For example, "providing sufficient evidence" is a writing skill but is also dependent on the student's ability to understand and make use of reading. Such a problem could be resolved by breaking the skill down into two "can do" components "can analyse argumentation in academic texts" (classified in the checklist as a reading skill) and "can reproduce others' ideas using their own words" (classified as a writing skill).

Include two columns for each "can-do" descriptor: "yes" and "must pay attention to". In the first column tick off against the skill/s to report that the student can do this. The second column should be used to indicate the skill or strategy a student must work towards to meet the language requirements.

Share the final draft of the checklist with the admissions administrators and the pre-sessional course tutors to invite their feedback on it.

Pilot the checklist with at least 30-40 students. It would be ideal to distribute the checklist across all student types (strong, weak, average). On the basis of this pilot procedure, further changes could be made.

Maximise opportunities for the course tutors to familiarise themselves with the checklist to ensure rater familiarisation with the adopted rating scale. All pre-sessional course tutors should be involved at each point during the planning and piloting phase to arrive at shared interpretations of each of the "can-do" descriptors.

Use the exit assessment checklist during the last week of the pre-sessional course. Each student should receive the original report and a copy should be sent to the students' affairs department.

Last but most importantly, revisit the checklist after every two years to check for any emergent changes.

By Fariha Hayat
The writer is a faculty member at a private university (Dawn)

Your Comments
"Pre - sessional English program are the best started in uk for the addmission of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes with the help of English pre sessional programme students are simply target for there courses and their entry requirements as well."
Name: Sumaira
City, Country: Karachi



Post your Feedback about information available on this page.